Tag Archives: China

Findings from research on mobile use amongst marginalised groups in China


I spent five weeks this summer undertaking research in Beijing and Gansu thanks to a UK-China Fellowship for Excellence from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.  The central purpose of my research was to explore the information and communication needs of poor and marginalised communities, especially people with disabilities (in Beijing) and farmers in rural areas (in Gansu Province).  I learnt so much – and probably more from the informal discussions than I did from the  focus groups and interviews that I conducted!  Many thanks are due to Professor Ding Wenguang and Chen Fei for all of their help and assistance in arranging meetings, and translating our dialogues.

The premises underlying my research were that:

  • all too often, new software and hardware are designed for the mass market, and then need to be ‘adapted’ to suit the ‘needs’ of poor and marginalised people
  • frequently, well-intentioned new technologies are developed in some of the richer parts of the world and then ‘applied’ in poorer countries; researchers are then surprised that there is little take up for their products
  • hence, we still need to get a much better understanding of the needs of these communities, and focus much more on designing technologies explicitly with their interests in mind
  • China has 18% of the world’s population, and so the market size of marginalised communities makes it worth developing products commercially for them

The resultant data are so rich that it is difficult to summarise them in detail.  However, the following seem particularly pertinent

Rural areas

  • The diversity of people and communities in rural areas of China is replicated in a diversity of needs.  ‘One size fits all’ solutions are not appropriate, yet the size of the market for particular groups is nevertheless very large given China’s overall population
  • Almost everyone already has at least one mobile ‘phone – mobiles are already widely used for information and communication, even for Internet access.  There are real implications for Africa – if electricity and connectivity can be provided
  • Economic information is particularly desired – especially on such things as agricultural input prices and market prices – particularly by men.  I was surprised at how dominant and significant this was.
  • There seem to be important gender differences in usage – women placed greater emphasis on social communication and health information; young male migrant workers in contrast seemed dominated by a desire to use mobile broadband to meet with girls.
  • Value for money is important – c. RMB 2-3 per month is all that most people are willing to pay for subscription services
  • Trust of source of information is also very important – there seems to be a lot of bogus messaging – and differing views as to what kind of organisation was most trustworthy.
  • There is real potential for village level training in effective use of mobiles – especially by women for women
  • For many users, the existing functionality of mobiles is more than they can cope with

Disabilities

  • There is huge potential for innovative hardware and software solutions – many interesting ideas were proposed
  • There is therefore a large opportunity for sharing good global practice with colleagues in China in the use of ICTs for people with disabilities in China
  • Information about location and direction is crucial for blind people – we need to think more innovatively about how to deliver on this
  • Screen size and configuration (not touch screen) are very important for blind people – Blackberry wins out over iPhones here!
  • There is an enormous opportunity for audio books (not only for blind people). Perhaps a civil society organisation could develop this, and even market audio books to generate income.
  • Security code challenges are important for blind people
  • Shopping information – much potential for RFID and 2D bar codes for blind people.
  • A powerful text scanner and reader in a mobile phone for blind people would be useful
  • Visualisation and touch/vibration of sound could also be developed further

There is a huge agenda ahead, and I am enthusiastic about ways in which we can encourage delivery on some of these exciting opportunities.  Thanks so much to BIS, Lanzhou University and Peking University for supporting this research, and to all those who contributed through their wisdom and hospitality

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Dongsi Jiutiao – hostel and red dining


One of the pleasures of Beijing is the opportunity to explore its numerous hutongs – narrow streets surrounded by low rise courtyard buildings, known as siheyuan.  As most guidebooks say, many of the hutongs have been destroyed to make way for new high-rise development, but some still retain their traditional character, and others have been redeveloped specifically with the tourist in mind.  Traditionally, hutongs were 9 metre wide streets, with some dating from as early as the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1341), and until the middle of the 20th century they provided the basic residential areas of most of Beijing.

Following a day exploring Ditan Park, the Lama Temple, the Confucius Temple and the Imperial College, we wandered south to have dinner at the Red Capital Club on Dongsi Jiutiao, which had been recommended by friends.  Everyone says it is difficult to find, but that was not our experience. Head south from the Zhangzizhonglu subway station and take the first hutong (Dongsi Jiutiao) immediately to the east (left as you head south!).  The Red Capital Club is then about 400 metres along on the south side of the road.

Anyway, we arrived too early, and decided simply to wander on to see if there might be anywhere we could sit down for a cold Tsingtao beer.  A short distance on, to the north of the road, we came across an amazing find – the Happy Dragon Courtyard Hostel at 51 Dongsi Jiutiao (note this is at a different location from the hostel mentioned on their website!  Phone: +86 (10) 84021970).  Although we only sat in the bar, we looked into the rooms which seemed very clean and well maintained. As well as dorms sleeping 6 people (RMB 90), they also had double rooms at only RMB 300 a night – amazing value for August (although the advertised rate was RMB 498).  The bar itself was in the centre of the courtyard, full of comfortable chairs, and served a good range of beverages – the beer was definitely cold and refreshing! Its WiFi service was particularly popular – and people from many different nationalities were logging on to their emails and Internet!  All in all, we reckoned that it would be a great place to stay for those on a limited budget.

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The Red Capital Club itself was also definitely an ‘interesting’ experience.  It is intended to reflect the life of the ruling elite in China in the 1950s.  As its website comments, “The immaculately restored compound captures the mood of the 1950s when China was driven by idealism. The lounge cigar divan is like stepping into Mao’s private meeting room. The furnishings were originally used by the central government in the 1950s. Two sofas next to lounge door were actually used by Marshal Lin Biao (Mao’s fated successor who lost out in an attempted coup). A poem of Mao’s adorns one wall and a photograph of Deng taken by his daughter and presented to the club another”.  The decor is now a little faded, and the food quite expensive, but it was definitely worth the visit.  They even had a bottle of Marsanne from the Caves de Tain in the Rhône Valley – which tasted remarkably good (although that could have been related to the fact that it was the first white wine I had tasted for almost a month!).

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Exploring Wuwei


Thanks to the wonderful hospitality of my assistant Chen Fei’s family, we were introduced over the last couple of days to the fascinating diversity of the area in the vicinity of Wuwei, in north-west central Gansu.  The city is situated along the Hexi corridor, leading westwards into central Asia, and has been subject to numerous cultural influences.  We had a kaleidoscope of experiences, including visiting the tomb where the famous bronze galloping horse treading on a flying swallow was found, wandering around the Confucius temple in Wuwei, walking in the desert at the edge of the city, learning all about how to serve and drink different types of Chinese tea, and then finishing up walking in the mountains near Tianzhu and being entertained by Tibetan dancers over lunch.  It was a brilliant time, and owed everything to the generosity of our hosts.

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Arrival in Lanzhou


We arrived in Lanzhou  from Beijing last night.  What a difference from my last visit almost exactly six years ago!  The Yellow River remains the same, but the number of high rise buildings and the amount of traffic are vastly increased.  Two dinners and a lunch later, the food has been wonderful – thanks so much to the generous hospitality of our hosts.  Today was relatively relaxed before we go out into the field on Monday – an opportunity to see some of the efforts of the local government to beautify the banks of the river: reconstructions of the old waterwheels, Longyuan park dedicated to dragon culture, statues of traditional folk stories, and a new wetland park full of beautiful flowers and walkways through the rushes.

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Top Ten Tips for International Visitors to the Peking University (北京大學) campus


When I was planning on visiting Peking University (also know as Beida, an abbreviation for Beijing Daxue the pinyin for Peking University 北京大學) I searched on the Internet for advice and guidance – and found really rather little of help.

So, having been here for five weeks, I thought it might be useful to offer some simple tips for visitors from abroad so that they can start to enjoy themselves as much as I have done:

  1. The campus is approximately rectangular with the main gates in the middle of the east, south and west sides.  It is a haven of relative peace and quiet, amidst the noise and bustle of modern Beijing. Note that the pedestrian (northerly – illustrated) and vehicular (southerly) gates on the west side are separate, and there is a further pedestrian gate at the south-west corner.  Remember to take your campus card with you when you go off campus, so that you can get back in past security without any problems!  It takes about 15 minutes walk to cross the campus from west to east.
  2. Food: there are numerous different food outlets across the campus – for most of which you need a pre-charged card to purchase meals.  The largest, with the widest diversity of food is situated at A on the map below – but it can be noisy, and is definitely not the place for a quiet chat. If you don’t speak much Chinese, there is a self-service counter on the ground floor, and so it is very simple to choose the food one wants, and pay with your charge-card. One of my favourite places to buy delicious take away bing (a combination of a pancake and an omlette) is at B (illustrated).  ‘International-style’ breakfasts are available at C, as part of the Shao Yuan campus hotel complex.
  3. Weiming Lake (D) in the centre-north of the campus is a great place for an evening stroll – or somewhere to walk when one needs to think reflectively away from the office and the oppression of e-mails!  The blossom was really beautiful in spring, but I imagine that the cool of the lake makes it an equally pleasant place to escape in the heat of the summer as well.  Just to the west lies the university museum and art gallery, which are well worth a visit.
  4. There is a subway/metro/underground station just outside the East Gate  – known as East Gate of Peking University (at E on the map).  This is on Line 4 and provides ready access into the centre of the city, and all of the various tourist sites that can be visited.  It is best to buy a transport card (blue in colour), which can then readily be topped up.  Single journeys across the city cost a mere RMB 2, and the card must be swiped across the entrance/exit scanners when entering and leaving.  There are also airport style bag checking devices for scanning all bags being taken into the stations.  The underground system is excellent, safe and easy to use – with station names written in Chinese and English, and clear announcements warning in advance of the next station at which the train is due to arrive.  It takes about an hour to get to the airport by underground (lines 4 and 10 costing RMB 2) and then the airport express (costing RMB 25) – and unless you have a lot of baggage this is the easiest way to get there.
  5. Cash: contrary to what I was told on arrival, the cashpoint/ATM machines on campus do work with foreign cards (at least they did with my Visa Debit card), and so getting cash is simple. I tended to use the ones by H on the map (next to the Post Office)
  6. Accommodation: I was fortunate enough to stay in the university’s Chiatai International Centre (illustrated; part of the Shao Yuan complex at F on the map), which provides perfectly comfortable, clean accommodation, with a refrigerator, shower/bath, kettle and TV (you soon get to enjoy CCTV’s English language broadcast).  The hot water can be a bit hit and miss, but I generally found that it was fine at around 21.38 in the evenings.  The Centre gets very booked up well in advance, so if you plan to stay here do make sure that your hosts get you booked in.  It is by no means a modern 5* hotel, but I have really come to feel that it is home, and the staff are all incredibly kind and helpful.  There is an expensive restaurant and café on the ground floor (remember that in China this is known as the first floor). The one drawback is that not all of the US students staying there have yet acquired their hosts’ respect for other people’s ears!
  7. Internet access is generally good across campus.  The PKU wi-fi system works well (although you do need to get an appropriate username and password from the IT Services Department), and there is Ethernet connectivity at the Chiatai International Centre.  Skype (even video) works fine, and is a great way of keeping in touch with family and friends.
  8. Supermarkets: there are two main supermarkets on campus, with the nearest to Shao Yuan being Wu-Mei (G on map – illustrated; the other, slightly more modern and cleaner looking is at H, which has several cashpoint machines nearby). Although quite small, Wu-Mei provides most things one might want, including: bread, sliced cheese, cashew nuts, dried fruit, yoghurt, water, beer, fruit juice and wine. So, when you cannot manage the same basic sorts of Chinese food for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and just need to have a cheese sandwich or fruit yoghurt for breakfast, this is the place to go. You can also buy the ubiquitous large flasks there for filling with boiling water and using to top up your tea cup throughout the day.  Just at the top of the stairs going down into Wu-Mei there is a small stall selling SIM cards and top-ups, and this is the best place to purchase your mobile connectivity.
  9. ‘Western’ food.  Should you want a relatively quiet and peaceful place to eat, apart from the university canteens, try the Café of Luck (I on map – illustrated), which serves a range of dishes such as steak and rice, salads, and pizzas (and even if you don’t speak fluent Chinese you can always point to the pictures), as well as cold beer – I always opted for the Tsingtao (although when that was not available the Yanjing was also not bad). Hidden away under the Centennial Hall there is also a small café called Paradis (see J on map) where it is possible to find reasonable coffee and capuccino – remember that China is a tea drinking country, and this is about the only place on campus where reasonable coffee is to be found – for that moment, when you are desperate for that wonderful bitter flavour, and the kick to the body’s energy system.
  10. Remember to walk on the right! Traffic in Beijing travels on the right – and this is also true (generally) of pedestrians.  So, when it gets crowded on campus, with thousands of people and hundreds of bicycles rushing to and from lectures, you will find it easier to ‘go with the flow’ if you walk on the right side.  And, do watch out for the silent electric scooters – they travel much more quickly than bicycles, and I am not quite sure why I have seen so few accidents!

Colleagues and students at the campus have gone out of their way to show us immense hospitality.  If ever in doubt, do ask your hosts for advice – be it restaurants, places to visit, the best bus to take to an obscure part of town – anything!  Many will go out of their way to take you where you want to go themselves, despite their busy schedules.  They will also relish the opportunity to practise their English!  Enjoy Beida – it is a great place to teach, think and do research.

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Student Spring Trip to the Miyun area


Last weekend (23rd-24th April), I was invited to join students from the Graduate School of Education at Peking University on their spring trip to the area around Miyun, about 100 kilometres to the north-east of Beijing.  It was an amazing experience, and a real opportunity not only to visit places that I would never otherwise have seen, but also a chance to learn more about student life in China.

We began at Chateau Changyu – a winery built to look like a French château, with a hotel complex in the form of a French-style village, replete with church, nearby.  I was amazed by the scale of the enterprise, as well as the rather surreal experience of visiting somewhere that was meant to be like France, but was very definitely not.  The nearest I came to feeling ‘at home’ was touching and smelling the Seguin Moreau barrels in the cellar! The wines were most certainly not cheap, with the most expensive one I could see being priced at around £1000!  They also had a fascinating wine museum that told the history of the company from its roots in the 19th century to the present day.  My favourite moment was when I came across a banner with the English translation “Oak barrel – Tim fragrance of wines”!

After spending a couple of hours walking around the winery and estate, we then headed northwards to the little village of Shitanglu, which describes itself as Beijing’s most beautiful village.  This is a place that is developing rural tourism on a considerable scale, with lots of properties having smart new buildings constructed to host visitors.  Eighty of us were dispersed into a couple of these properties, each of which had a series of rooms surrounding a central courtyard. Kindly, or perhaps because they did not want to suffer my snoring, they felt that I should not share one of the large beds where they were sleeping, and I was given the privilege of having my own room.  After dinner, we walked down to a nearby lake at dusk, and my training as a geographer with an eye for place came in handy as we found our way back beneath the startlit sky to our rooms.  And then the card games and mahjong began!

The next morning we headed off for the Taoyuan Immortals’ Valley, where I was promised a walk.  What a walk it turned out to be!  All in all, we spent about five hours climbing up to the head of a ravine, and then coming back along a ridge and very steep, slippery descent.  Alongside waterfalls, beautiful areas of woodland, steep cliffs etched by ancient rivers, and small lakes, I was amazed to find patches of snow and ice still surviving from the winter.  We had our picnic lunches at the summit, and the views stretched away across the valley and lakes towards range upon range of mountains in the far distance.

It was a really excellent trip, and I’m most grateful to all the students who made me feel so welcome!

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First impressions of Shenzhen


I flew down from Beijing to Shenzhen today for a 48 hour visit to meet with colleagues at the University.  This evening my good friend Man Xu kindly took me for an exploration of this extraordinary city.  Until 1979 when it became China’s first Special Economic Zone, it was little more than a fishing village just to the north of Hong Kong.  Over the last 30 years, it has come to symbolise China’s energy and dynamism, becoming one of the fastest growing cities of the world.

Thanks to Jack’s suggestion, I took the opportunity to visit the digital rabbit warren that is Huaqiangbei, where you can buy everything, and copies of everything, electronic that you could ever want – apparently except any accessibility related hardware!  Given my interest in disability, we explicitly asked repeatedly whether there were, for example, any Braille keyboards or other assistive technologies, but no-one seemed aware that such things could exist.

And then we visited one of the smart new malls (MIXC), replete with numerous luxury stores rather putting London’s Bond Street to shame! The wealth that has accumulated here in such a short time, fueled by the city’s high-tech industries and banking sector is quite extraordinary.

Oh yes, and why is it that so many models on the advertising hoardings across China are ‘Western’ and blonde?

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